Poor Law records: applications

The Poor Law (Scotland) Act of 1845 saw a complete reworking of the approach to managing and elevating poverty in Scotland. Parochial Boards, and later Parish Councils, were established to manage the poor in their areas.  Serious record keeping began, the legacy of which is held in the archives.

The Outer Hebrides had 8 parochial boards: Barra, South Uist (including Benbecula), North Uist , Harris, Lochs, Uig, Barvas and Stornoway.  Using the case of one pauper from Stornoway, over the next few weeks we’ll trace him through the records held by the archives.

The Parochial Board employed Inspectors of the Poor.  The Inspector would be notified of a needy case and would go out and visit them, keeping a detailed record of what he found.  These were written up in the Applications for Parochial Relief volumes.

Alexander Morrion's entry in the Applications for Parochial ReliefAlexander Morrion's entry in the Applications for Parochial Relief

Above we see the record of the application of Alexander Morrison of Keith Street, Stornoway,  in May of 1894. [Click on the images to open them at a larger size, and form more detail, then select “full size” just above the image.]

 These notes were made following the Inspector’s visit and provide lots of interesting detail not available in census, birth, death or marriage records making these a great source for family historians.

Personal details of Alexander’s situation are recorded that outline his requirement for assistance.  We learn he is old and that his wife is ill.  Although he was a seaman, he now no longer works.  Column 12 lists the nature of his disability:  in this context disability does not necessarily mean a physical disability, but can relate to the level of income, or circumstances that effect their ability to live an able life.

Alexander’s dependants are also listed.  In some applications, we see lists of family member’s dependant on one person who is now unable to work, or is on such a low income they are destitute.  There are examples of a recent widow applying because her husband has been drowned at sea and she has 5 children to look after.  Individuals may be the sole carer for relatives or they may care for family members with mental or physical disabilities meaning they are unable to work. 

Column 14 gives more explicit detail about Alexander’s  situation.  We find out that he has lived in Stornoway for many years (although he was from Harris originally) and has worked on coastal smacks.  Mary is his third wife and he has several children from his previous marriages, none of who can help – this is important as it was expected that if you were in need your family would be your first port of call for help.   For family historians, such information can give lots of new avenues for research by identifying relatives, locations of residence and employment information. 

We also learn that he has a small life assurance policy for he and his wife, the value of which is still to be entered into the volume.

The Inspector had the power to issue instant relief or help to applicants.  This could be a small amount of money but more often it could be through providing oatmeal, peats for heating, arranging for re-roofing of a house or providing bedding and clothing.  Sometime, relief would be refused because it was felt they had land or assets enough to care for themselves, or family members who could help them.

Where it was felt that someone’s situation was so desperate and likely to be an ongoing case, they would be helped instantly but then referred to the Parochial Board for a decision as to whether they should receive regular help and be entered onto the General Register of the Poor. 

We can see here that Alexander was a worthy case and was admitted to the roll on 29 June 1894, case number 922.

Next week, we’ll find out more about Alexander’s situation by looking at the General register of the Poor.

About David Powell

Project Manager and Archivist with Tasglann nan Eilean Siar
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